Most audiences will view Signature Move as their introduction to Chicago filmmaker Jennifer Reeder, though BAMcinemaFest veterans already know her as a distinct and prolific voice in American short form cinema. Her melodramatic sensibilities have been cultivated at about the same rate as the festival’s signature traits have been defined, so it’s no surprise they’ve granted her a prime opening weekend spot in this year’s edition. What becomes clear from the start of Signature Move, though, is how significant, at times frustrating, a departure this is Reeder, whose purposefully stilted style is largely diluted in service to someone else’s story. To the film’s benefit, though, that story is a rom-com about a Muslim lesbian lucha wrestler.
It’s clear Signature Move is trying to juggle a lot of ostensibly conflicting tastes and interests, even setting aside the integration of Reeder’s style. Inspired by the romantic life of screenwriter and star Fawzia Mirza, the film is all about diving headlong into tastes and cultures far different from one’s own and inevitably finding that they all hold the same universal values and experiences. Mirza’s character, Zaynab, is already comfortable diving into hobbies and tastes outside those of Muslim culture, at least in their public life. Immigration lawyer by day, doing wrestling training in her spare time and igniting a relationship with a very forward, self-assured Hispanic lesbian, Alma (Sari Sanchez).
In her home life, she keeps quiet about her outside activities to her live-in mother Parveen (Indian star Shabana Azmi), clinging to her living room chair day in and out, watching Pakistani soap operas. It’s the kind of secretively divided life that slowly rubs against Alma, so far down the road of openness that dating someone who isn’t feels like a step backwards. If Signature Move balances anything skillfully, it’s how it shows the difficulty of that kind of relationship while still validating both perspectives. “My path isn’t worst than your path,” Zaynab tells Alma in a declaration of self-assurance about her imperfect life, and the entire film is ultimately about Zaynab and those in her life becoming more comfortable with her stalled queer progression.
Much of the film is rough and messy, like the kind of queer validation film you’ll watch when scanning Netflix for trashy lesbian films. There are moments when Reeder’s film transcends that status is amusing ways, and many others where it feels content with its on-the-nose melodramatics. “Why must you work out? Much better to be in,” Parveen jests to her daughter who retorts “I’d rather be out.” While talking about relationship problems, Zaynab’s coach darts at her “Be straight with me.” “Now you must find a new home… just like I had to,” Parveen says as she lets a spider out of her home. These moments are such overly direct puns that you almost can’t help but go on-board with its telenovela schmaltz, all the down to its blunt title reference, “That’s my signature move.” It may not Reeder’s, but she’s happy servicing someone else’s.